In the two years since Maidan, Ukraine’s nonparliamentary left has gone from infantilism to confusion to disarray to, finally, an attempt to research and analyze the current situation.
I work at the Center for Social and Labor Research in Kyiv, a small, nonprofit research center founded by a group of sociologists, economists, and political scientists in early 2013 to investigate socioeconomic problems in Ukraine. On the morning of November 21, 2013, when Viktor Yanukovych’s prime minister, Nikolai Azarov, announced that his government was not going to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, I sent out a press release about our findings that worker protests and strikes were on the rise in Ukraine. We are a small organization, well outside the political mainstream, and we do not expect our press releases to garner national attention, but this one drew even less attention than usual. The news cycle for the next few days focused on the protesters on Maidan and their demands that the government sign the Association Agreement with the EU.
At the time, we at the center were just beginning to analyze the conditions of the agreement. We were, overall, more critical than not of the agreement’s demands for changes in Ukraine’s labor and industry protections. At the same time, we more than welcomed the Maidan protesters’ demands for an end to corruption and oligarchic rule.
That evening I went out into the square. I brought with me a poster I had made at home: I had painted the gold stars of the EU on a red background, to say that the only European union I wanted to join was a socialist one—one that offered membership on less humiliating terms than those currently being proposed to my country.
But it wasn’t just people from western Ukraine, and they weren’t only there for economic reasons.Tweet
The first few days on the square, there weren’t many people, mostly just students, journalists, and activists. The activists were clear about wanting to change the government and the entire system of neooligarchic rule, but most of the regular people who showed up genuinely believed in joining the EU and in visa-free movement through Europe. Visa-free movement was especially attractive to people from western Ukraine who traveled to Europe to work low-wage service jobs; these jobs paid poorly by European standards, but they were better than no jobs at all. But it wasn’t just people from western Ukraine, and they weren’t only there for economic reasons. The protest was joined by students who wanted to attend university in Europe; the middle class, which had the means to travel to Europe and wanted to do so more often; and human rights activists and journalists who believed in “European values” as an expression of human rights.
There was also always a strong right-wing presence on Maidan, initially consisting of activists from the well-established Svoboda Party and eventually joined by recruits from the newly founded Right Sector and other marginal right-wing groups. My “red EU” poster was sufficiently subtle that no one bothered me about it, but when I went out onto the square with the Left Opposition, the small socialist group of which I am a member, and tried to organize discussions or give talks (for one we invited Serhiy Zhadan, a writer who had recently been attacked by anti-Maidan protesters in Kharkiv), we were quickly confronted by several young toughs who claimed we were “provocateurs” and strongly suggested we leave. The first few times this happened, we did leave. The harassment stopped for two reasons: one was that, in mid-January, people started dying. After that, there was a lot less tension between us and the right on Maidan. The other thing that happened was that the women in our group formed a self-defense battalion, just as so many others on Maidan had done. We practiced self-defense, organized lectures, and showed some movies; two of the women took part in battles with police, but as a battalion we never called for violence. Our battalion earned enough attention from the press that from then on we were more or less immune to harassment from right-wing activists. The women’s battalion was just about the only success of the left wing on Maidan; that was how we finally earned a space for ourselves there.
Our purpose at the protests was to understand the demands of the protesters and to try to formulate our own. After we’d stood up for ourselves, we managed to organize several discussions and lectures. Our leaflet “10 Demands for Social Change” was welcomed by some of the protesters—the mood on Maidan had become so radical by late January that some people felt our demands hadn’t gone far enough. In the leaflet we spoke about giving power to the people and about direct democracy, about the nationalization of major industrial enterprises, increased taxation on wealth, an end to capital flight, the need for a strict division between business and government, the right to medicine and education, and the abolition of the special security forces, like Berkut, who were at that moment systematically beating up protesters. When our activists visited the “anti-Maidan” protests in eastern Ukraine, this same leaflet, minus the demand about Berkut, was also met with understanding. (To people in the east, terrified by Russian television propaganda about the bloody nationalist coup in Kyiv, the Berkut and other police seemed like their only defense.) Support for our program confirmed the results of our Center’s research, the same ones I had sent out the morning that Maidan began: the mood of the populace all over Ukraine in 2013 was more rebellious than usual, and socioeconomic factors were the chief cause. It was these findings that allowed us not to lose our heads during the brief period of euphoria after the triumph of Maidan or succumb to the potential illusions (shared by some of our former comrades) about the utopian nature of the People’s Republics being constructed in the east under the watchful eye of Russian agents. I knew that the real nature of people’s protest was socioeconomic, and that neither of the new regimes had the interests of working people and the poor anywhere near the top of its agenda. Nevertheless, in both cases, I naively hoped for the best.
Of course my hopes were disappointed. A weakened Ukraine became yet another battlefield for two imperialisms. Under cover of protecting their fellow Russians or defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Russia and the West both encouraged a slow-moving but violent conflict. Throughout 2014, the Left Opposition struggled to formulate our demands and our position. It was a terrible, terrifying year for many, and we were no exception. Yesterday’s activists from the same side of the barricades went off to fight on different sides of the war. Some of them were captured and some were killed. Others wore themselves out trying to help the Ukrainian army: they collected money, transported armored vests and artillery. Meanwhile just a few small groups kept trying to agree on a united antiwar text. For my part, I decided I would not help anyone who had taken up arms; I would only help civilians fleeing the war with whatever I had: my apartment, my clothes, and the clothes of my children.
For my part, I decided I would not help anyone who had taken up arms.Tweet
For almost a year I hosted families fleeing the fighting in eastern Ukraine; they were the ones who helped me understand the extent to which the war had been foisted on ordinary people by ceaseless propaganda from both sides and then presented as the natural order of things. Most people still couldn’t understand how it had happened, how some serious but not intractable disagreements had led to “all this.” Then, in late winter 2015, after the European-brokered cease-fire at Minsk had significantly decreased the intensity of the fighting, I traveled to the east to talk with the women who lived there. I believe women bear the brunt of any war, whether as civilians suffering bombardment, or as wives or mothers of soldiers dying at the front, or as those tasked with providing food and warmth under impossible circumstances.
In the east, women who had spent the past six months in and out of basements, watching their sons and brothers and husbands go off to the front, were now returning to “normal” life. In the rebel-held territories, this meant long lines for humanitarian aid from the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and long days searching for affordable food in the grocery stores. In January the Ukrainian government had imposed a de facto embargo on the importation of goods and services into the occupied territories. Clearly intended as a harsh lesson to the people who lived under rebel rule, its net effect was to anger the residents and force them into the arms of Russia. Food and other goods that had, somehow or other, continued to make it to the territories from the rest of Ukraine now slowed to a trickle; they were partly replaced by Russian goods, but since these, too, had to cross a border and be subject to both official and unofficial tariffs, they were not exactly plentiful. The result was that food was becoming scarce.
Municipal services were also scarce. The government had “melted away” and only partly been replaced by a new one. In Donetsk, buildings damaged in the fighting of the past year remained mostly unrepaired, and the streets of this once uniquely clean (for Ukraine) city were littered with garbage. Too many people had left, and the government that remained was too busy fighting its war.
For ordinary residents, concerns were more mundane. In order to receive pensions and other government payments—an important source of livelihood for much of the population, especially the vulnerable population that had not had the resources to leave the territories where fighting was taking place—they had to travel into unoccupied Ukraine. Before the embargo, this had been simple enough. After it was imposed, people were often left standing in checkpoint lines for twelve hours or more.
I hope it doesn’t strike anyone as pro-government propaganda if I say that in the government-controlled territories life was significantly better. There was food in the stores, and currency in the ATMs, and the men with guns were, on the whole, much less likely to detain you for no apparent reason. On my last visit to Donetsk I was detained and questioned for several hours by their MGB, or secret police. I was released, and plan to go back again, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of paranoia that the rebel government labors under. In Ukrainian-controlled territory, things are more relaxed. And yet there, too, people have found themselves in a war zone, mostly against their will.
There was food in the stores, and currency in the ATMs, and the men with guns were, on the whole, much less likely to detain you.Tweet
In the sociological questionnaire I distributed, I asked people who they thought was fighting whom, and what the demands of the warring sides were, as far as they understood. My respondents had various views, but more often than anything they expressed their surprise that people had taken up arms against one another; they spoke of the fact that simple people had no reason to fight, that it was the oligarchs and politicians who were fighting one another. People like them, they believed, had no influence on or say in the situation.
Russia no longer denies that it was responsible for seizing Crimea, nor does it deny that it has propped up the People’s Republics, but the situation inside Ukraine remains complicated even though wartime is unfriendly to ambiguities. Even after the last Russian “volunteer” rides the last Russian tank off Ukrainian territory, the problems that allowed the regions of Ukraine to fight one another will persist. The policies of the current government toward the war’s displaced persons, which make it extremely difficult for them to set up new lives in unoccupied Ukraine, are cruel and inhumane: the government is in effect trying to blame them for the war. Instead of supporting them materially and psychologically, it gives them populist slogans like “The East Is Ukraine,” and “Crimea Is Ukraine.” It takes away their right to vote, degrades them at checkpoints between occupied and non-occupied Ukraine, forces old men and women with children to stand in lines for days. The people who suffer the most from this war are the poor; those with means left the conflict zone long ago.
There is no good or bad side of this war to me. Amid the geopolitical wrangling over an area where the interests of Russia and the United States collide, it has been forgotten that Ukraine is also a country of forty-five million people, one quarter of whom live on less than $4 a day.